Four senior Catholic cardinals went public this month with a private letter they sent him earlier, asking him to state plainly whether he is liberalizing Church practice on divorced, remarried Catholics.
, called a dubia, is an official request for a Yes or No answer from the Pope.
Francis refused to respond and so on November 14, the cardinals published their letter on various Catholic news sites.
The cardinals' complaint is that Francis hints that priests should have some leeway to give communion to Catholics who have remarried after divorce.
And they are threatening unprecedented censure of the Pope if he does not satisfy their demands.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the signers of the letter, told the National Catholic Register that if Francis does not answer, he will spearhead
a "formal act of correction" of the Pontiff -- something that has never happened before in the Catholic Church.
What did Jesus say?
The conservative quartet is responding to a major document that the Pope released in April, called Amoris Laetitia, or "On Love in the Family." In it, he urged priests to be more accepting
of divorced Catholics, gay men and lesbians, and other people living in what the Church considers "irregular" family situations.
The issue of communion for remarried Catholics has become a touchstone for Catholics, determining on which side of the conservative/liberal divide they stand.
Conservatives say giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics would break with the millennia-old teaching of the Church that second marriages are adulterous.
They cite Jesus himself, who says in the Gospel of Luke 16:18: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery."
The doctrine has been affirmed by Church fathers and popes prior to Francis, including most recently by John Paul II.
But liberals say the issue is not one-size-fits-all. They say there may be cases where divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion.
Bishops and Catholics around the world are openly arguing about what the Pope means.
Newly appointed US Cardinal Kevin Farrell reprimanded his brother bishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, for telling Catholics in Philadelphia that divorced and remarried couples cannot receive communion.
"I don't share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no," he told the Catholic News Service
. "I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at... you will never find two couples who have the same reason for being divorced and remarried," he said.
to Farrell's objections, saying, "The words of Jesus himself are very direct and radical on the matter of divorce."
"I wonder if Cardinal-designate Farrell actually read and understood the Philadelphia guidelines he seems to be questioning," Chaput added.
Pope Francis has not responded directly to the Cardinals, but he has criticized "a certain legalism" in the response to his document.
"Some continue not to understand," he said in a November 17 interview
with the Italian Catholic newspaper, Avvenire. "Think about certain responses to Amoris Laetitia -- it's either black or white, even though it's in the flow of life that one must discern."
And a confidant of the Pope Monday wrote an exclusive article for CNN
, saying that the questions that the conservatives are raising have already been answered.
The Pope's refusal to answer the cardinals' questions directly is emblematic of how Francis effects change in the Catholic Church: he doesn't deal in the doctrinal nitty-gritty but goes straight to the people -- via his priests -- regardless of the rules.